Flashback Friday: Explosions Tore Through St. Paul's Commodore Hotel 40 Years Ago

February 16, 2018 09:26 AM

Ross Malkuch can still remember what he was wearing that day 40 years ago, when he was one of more than 70 people injured in a pair of explosions that gutted much of St. Paul's historic Commodore Hotel.

Or at least, he can remember what was on his feet.

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"The day before, my girlfriend at the time (now his wife) had given me a pair of red socks with white hearts for Valentine's Day," Malkuch said, looking back on the events of Feb. 15, 1978. "I had them on during the explosion, and I still have them today. I pull them out every year on Valentine's Day - these 40-year-old socks. I guess you could say they're my lucky pair."

Malkuch and everyone else in the area certainly had luck on their side that day.

The devastating explosions at the residential hotel in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood - which first opened in 1920 - shattered walls and collapsed floors.

But while many were injured - including 43 firefighters - no one died in the blasts.

"It was really unbelievable that no one was killed," said George Latimer, the mayor of St. Paul from 1976-90, who arrived on the scene shortly thereafter.

"It was such a blessing. It was stunning really when you saw that devastation."

Investigators determined the cause to be a natural gas leak. The first blast started a fire that drew first responders to the scene, and a second explosion followed soon after, blowing one fireman just entering the building back out through a first-floor window, according to an account in the next morning's Minneapolis Tribune.

It was the second blast that injured Malkuch, then 23, who had been working down the street. He had rushed over to see what happened and if he could help.

"It was like a mighty wind," he recalled. "I think the explosion blew me 10 or 15 feet through the air. Everything happened so fast. After I landed, I tried to hide behind a fire truck that was already there."

Malkuch said he ended up in the hospital for a couple of days afterward with facial burns and other injuries.

"I burned off most of the hair on my head," he said. "I remember I had a wool-lined down jacket on, and the lining caught fire in the explosion. Fortunately, after flying through the air, I automatically did the stop, drop and roll when I hit the ground."

The explosions blew holes in walls and tore apart much of the building's inside. Though strangely, the hotel's famed Art Deco bar - site of a speakeasy in the basement during Prohibition, and rumored to have been frequented by author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had lived at the hotel on two different occasions - survived largely intact.

The remodeled bar design had debuted in 1934, after Prohibition came to a close.

"There was dust on everything inside," Latimer said. "But the martini glasses were sitting just as they were, all covered in dust of course. Everything in the bar was just as it had been. I said to (then-fire chief Steve) Conroy, 'I guess it goes to show that God loves a drinker.'"

Latimer was quick to praise the efforts of the city's fire department, and other firefighters and first responders who assisted at the scene.

Even Conroy, who had just arrived at the hotel prior to the second blast, was knocked 10 feet back into a truck and cut his face, according to the Tribune.

"The firefighters were just covered in soot," Latimer recalled. "So many of them had already been there when the (second) explosion happened. Every mayor brags about their fire department, I'm sure. But our firefighters in St. Paul are unbelievable. They were then and they are now. They're heroes, truly."

One of the firefighters there that day was Gary Skoglund, a member of the department from 1958 until his death in the line of duty in 1989.

"He broke his hip in the explosion," his son David, who was then only 9 years old, said. "He was outside the building and had just gotten to the scene when the (second) explosion happened. When you saw the pictures of the damage in the paper afterward, it was pretty scary. It's really lucky no one was killed."

The building survived. It remains home to condominiums today, and the historic bar and restaurant reopened in 2015.

"I've been by there lots of times since then and looked at it," Malkuch said. "It is kind of miraculous when you think about the fact that over 70 people were injured. But no one was killed. Just feet from where I was standing, a hole was blown in the side of the building. I'd say it was about 15 feet in diameter. So I was really lucky that day. Lots of people were."

Credits

Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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